Why are Birkenstocks so popular? I wish I could tell you in two or three words.
Birkenstock sandals have to be one of the most bizarre fashion statements to ever achieve worldwide acclaim.
They were literally invented by someone who hates design and are kind of infamous for being ugly.
Yet, somehow, they found themselves on the runway on multiple occasions and have adorned the feet of hippies, models, celebrities, moms, dads, lowly commoners like myself, and even Gen Z.
So, how did these chunky thick sandals from Germany end up on the feet of people all over the world? And what really makes Birkenstock really popular?
Let’s dive right into it…
Why Are Birkenstocks So Popular?
Their classic sandals may be timeless, but particularly in their early days, they weren’t really the kind of footwear that popped off the shelf.
In fact, American shoe retailers wouldn’t even stock them at first because they were so different from what was selling at the time.
But the true draw to Birkenstock isn’t something obvious to the eyes but rather a combination of subtle factors that make it the near-perfect shoe for developing that long-term emotional attachment.
This has led to a fiercely loyal following of Birkenstock’s evangelists. As CEO Oliver Reichert, “You try and survive the first visual influence, and then it is love on the second sight.”
This isn’t a very sexy way of presenting a shoe brand to the world, but it has been a huge component of the company’s success.
Let’s start with how Birkenstocks are made…
Simplicity & Repairability
Birkenstock sandals are made with only three basic parts, the straps, the sole, and the footbed.
Each one of these components can be easily repaired or replaced at a moment’s notice by basically any cobbler around the world.
But hold on for a sec…
You have to remember that this repairability comes from the roots of this company which started back in the 1700s.
A cobbler is a rare profession nowadays for sure but much needed back two and a half centuries ago when you couldn’t just drive down to your local Walmart to buy a shiny new pair of shoes made in some other country on the other side of the world.
While modern shoes and casual sneakers are very difficult to repair, with your Birkenstock, it’s not only feasible but also desirable to go in for repairs.
The simplicity of the build makes it easy for cobblers to stock up on three basic components, and the lack of stitching or cement construction means it’s relatively straightforward to peel off the old and replace it with the new.
Today, Birkenstocks are one of the most commonly repaired shoes around the world and there’s a whole industry built around them.
In fact, we’re at a point where we have entire shoe repair businesses devoted solely to Birkenstock like the Birkenstock Doctor.
Tom Lonergan has repaired thousands upon thousands of Birkenstock from across the states in almost two decades of business.
The next time you walk past a shoe repair store, take a look in the window and you will probably see at least some Birkenstock lying around ready to get repaired.
Eric (Resole it & repair it)
I’ve been wearing my Birkenstock Arizonas for well over 10 years. Over those years, I’ve had them resoled and redone dozens of times at different cobbler shops, and it always turns out amazing.
At this point, the only original thing from the shoes I bought when I was back in high school are the leather straps.
Most recently, I actually used Vibram outsoles which wear a little bit harder than the traditional Birkenstock bone style design.
On previous iterations, I’ve had cobblers who actually just removed the heel part of the outsole and replaced it with a harder-wearing leather because I tend to strike hard on my heel every time step.
So, not only do you get to repair your shoes extending their life, but you can actually get them tailor-made for what you use them for and how your foot behaves.
Sure, this isn’t technically the same shoe that I bought when I was 16 years old, but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t built a deep and meaningful relationship with my Birkis.
The versatility of the chunky two-strapped sandal, the Arizona, means it can be dressed down with socks, casually complement a nice dress, or even add a pop of color or texture to an otherwise uninspired outfit.
While Birkenstocks are simple, that simplicity is anything but random. The process of creating a pair of sandals requires collaboration.
There are a variety of ingredients needed to create anything special like this, but in this case, there are three in particular that are really key to the Birkenstock.
This unlikely team of misfits has come together for one final epic heist…
First, we have leather.
Leather gets around and you can find it on just about every product, but there’s a reason for that. Long-lasting and aesthetically timeless, leathers are eye candy for this operation.
Then we have cork…
Don’t get on the wrong side of cork. Cork might not be a looker, but it is the bulk filling out the form that supports this whole operation.
Cork has been used in sandals since at least the time of ancient Rome. It’s harvested from the bark of the cork oak tree, and it is elastic, water-repellent, and shock absorbent.
This mixture is then sandwiched between two layers of jute baked into molds and then topped with a layer of suede to create the footbed as we know it today.
Latex is our tech genius.
Dropped out of Harvard and somehow ended up here with us, not only is this the platform on which this whole thing operates, but it’s the binding agent so that all the teams can stick together.
Now for the Birkenstock secret weapon…
The most critical component for the Birkenstock in this heist analogy we’re trying out is the footbed which the Birkenstock family first envisioned at the end of the 19th century.
The footbed is actually what makes Birkenstocks really good for your feet.
Birkenstocks take leftover Portuguese cork from wine stoppers, grind it up, then mix it with latex milk harvested from tropical rubber trees.
The Birkenstock footbed has the ability to mold to your foot while retaining its form to create a customized and supremely comfortable fit for the wearer.
In 1963, Karl, Jr. introduced the world to the first ever Birkenstock sandal with built-in arch support, the Madrid.
Unsurprisingly, cork is very often used in more expensive shoes for this reason.
Overall, one thing we know for sure is that this company will never be the same as when the legendary Karl Birkenstock first conceived of his miraculous footbed sandal.
The Birkenstock family has literally written textbooks and taught specialists about foot health and arch support.
They used generations of shoemaking and orthopedic knowledge to design an insole that has a pretty much universally beneficial structure meant to support the foot.
In Reichert’s words, Birkenstocks are “Aspirin for your feet.”
Is that true?
Who knows, but it sounds good.
While the basic principles of arch support apply to pretty much everyone, the Birkenstocks found a way to create a factory-made product that somehow ends up customized to your unique foot situation just by you wearing them.
This is because of that special cork/latex blend we hinted to earlier.
This mixture, according to their website, was first concocted by Karl Birkenstock while experimenting in his family kitchen.
While the fashion world may have got its paws on Birkenstock and turned out all kinds of eye-grabbing versions of the original, that is not what they are known for and what they got their acclaim for in the first place.
The most popular top-selling and iconic Birkenstock products are the:
- Birkenstock Madrid.
- Birkenstock Arizona.
- Birkenstock Gizeh.
The Gizeh also happens to be some of the oldest and simplest products that Birkenstock sells.
There’s a reason for this…
The fashion world tends to favor the ever-changing season-by-season trends, which can be exhausting and expensive to keep up with, not to mention the fact that it’s horrible for the planet as well.
But a simpler design can sometimes last decades even millennia without looking all that out of place.
Funny enough, the Gizeh sandals literally have roots in ancient Egypt, which means it is a style that has worked for over 3000 years.
This timeless design essentially means that Birkenstocks are endlessly sellable.
Still Made in Germany
To this very day, Birkenstock makes all of their sandals and footbeds in Görlitz, Germany, which is kind of crazy for such a massive international company.
Companies like Bloodstones moved all of their production overseas to places like Vietnam and China to basically make more money, but Birkenstocks adamantly refuses to move their footbridge production outside of their German homeland.
While this certainly makes things more expensive and limits the growth of the company overall, Reichert insists that this is the way to go to ensure quality.
They want control over the whole value chain, and if they outsource that production to another country, it’s almost impossible for them to quickly react to quality control issues and maintain what they see for their products over the entire lifespan.
I think they wanted to stay true to their history and I think it’s part of making the brand exclusive and make people interested in this having limited production.
Birkenstock Turns Down Collaborations
Birkenstock seems content with its strategy of measured growth, which is one reason it did the unthinkable.
The company even turned down collaborations with streetwear giants Supreme and Vetements.
Actually, “turned down” is a bit of an understatement because Birkenstock’s CEO said the collaboration felt like ‘prostitution’.
They just felt they didn’t need a trendy collaboration with Supreme to drum up excitement.
Instead, the company released a line of colorful waterproof and more affordable versions of some of their best-selling footwear.
Birkenstocks Create Memories
This kind of emotional connection to a pair of Birks is not rare.
Birkenstocks created almost a perfect shoe with which to build memories.
Isn’t that true Jason Momoa…
We’ve come across stories of nuns wearing these sandals to the holy land or people who still have the same Birkenstocks that they wore to Woodstock in 89.
A huge part of this imbued meaning is also because Birkenstocks themselves have retained a lot of those core values that they set up from the beginning.
Birkenstock Leaves Amazon
Gen Z and anyone else for that matter are no longer able to order Birkenstock from the largest online retailer in the world, Amazon.
In 2017, Birkenstock removed all of its merchandise from Amazon and the company also cut ties with other third-party retailers.
Counterfeiters were allegedly selling fakes for $20 less than the price of authentic Birkenstocks, which drew ire from CEO David Khan:
“The Amazon marketplace, which operates as an ‘open market’, creates an environment where we experience unacceptable business practices which we believe jeopardize our brand…”.
He goes on to say that “…Policing this activity internally and in partnership with Amazon has proven impossible.”
This was a huge bold move in a day where Amazon is basically synonymous with online sales, but the decision to leave the biggest online marketplace in the world didn’t hurt the company’s bottom line.
In fact, experts say the decision boosted the company’s standing with consumers. After they very publicly pulled out of Amazon, Google said that Birkenstock was the single most searched brand that back to school.
To this day, Amazon is rife with counterfeits smearing the good Birkenstock name.
Birkenstock is incredibly strategic about where they sell their shoes. They apply the same strategy to their brick-and-mortar footprint because the company only has 54 stores worldwide and just two of those are in the US.
You can also find them in stores like Famous Footwear and Urban Outfitters, but also at Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue.
So, as opposed to the shoe business which tends to be much more about just shoveling a lot of product out, Birkenstock have kept their growth very much under control, and again, scarcity breeds excitement on the part of the consumer and I think that’s been part of the winning strategy for them.
Are Birkenstocks Ethically Made?
It is pretty clear at this point that Birkenstock is a high-quality long-lasting brand and that these things indicate that they might also be a reasonably ethical brand, too.
The fact that they keep production close to home in one of the greenest countries in the world from a sustainability standpoint with some of the best labor laws is a very good sign.
Not only that but the bulk of the materials they use are totally natural in contrast to much of the rest of the shoe world which is heavily dependent on artificial materials like plastic and foam.
Cork, for example, is one of Birkenstock’s most-used materials and is harvested without killing the tree.
Their latex and jute are likewise sourced from plants.
While there’s some controversy about the use of leather, it remains a much more durable material than any vegan alternatives available today like the Arizona EVA.
It isn’t synthetically manufactured and so it biodegrades when you’re done with it.
While all this is fine and dandy, as you may be able to guess, we would like to see a little more transparency and third-party certifications when it comes to some of their claims because at this point there’s no way for us to back up any of the claims that they have said.
Consumers don’t necessarily know what it means for these sandals to be made in Germany or what it means when Birkenstock says that they constantly work to improve production processes, products, packaging, and logistics.
What does that mean?
We can’t be totally sure how they treat their animals before they become leather, and getting that third-party certification would help at least reassure customers that the money that we spend on these shoes is supporting everything down the line.
But despite this lack of certification, all things point towards a better business model than what’s available out there right now.
But in that case, they also offer vegan versions of most of their shoes.
Early Days of Birkenstocks in the US
In the early days, Birkenstock sandals were built with a real anti-fashion mindset. Karl Birkenstock was once described as “the godfather of this absolutely design-hating, anti attitude.”
Karl was all about function. This sentiment was so ingrained into the company ethos that when the founder of Birkenstock USA, Margot Fraser, asked to introduce color to the line, the Swiss distributor said, “This woman is going to ruin us. We are orthopedic – we don’t need color.”
While this does sound a little crazy, it may have been a symbol of what was to come for the brand.
Birkenstocks got their footing among the anti-nuke anti-processed food hippie health nut culture.
They gave no flips about how totally ugly these things were and only cared about whether or not they were aligning their chakras.
Eventually, Birkenstock sandals became associated with this counterculture.
They were the shoe of the opposition or as Director Jason Reitman put it, “Nothing says I want to tell you how to live your life more than Birkenstocks”, which is just a rowdy diss.
Birkenstock shoes have been called the kale of footwear because everyone knows it’s good for you, but it’s so unappealing that only the really intense people with a lot of ideas on how to live life end up latching onto it before getting turned into memes.
But unlike kale, Birkenstocks were able to transcend these first impressions and eventually morph into a mainstream luxury fashion brand.
Eventually, Birkenstock would come to represent the exact opposite of the countercultural movement that it was founded in.
Why did this happen?
Birkenstock’s success as a fashion brand lies in a few key design features…
- The sandals are comfortable.
- They’re high quality.
- They’re more or less timeless.
The Birkenstock family has been in the shoe business since 1774 when Johann Adam Birkenstock started working as a cobbler in Germany.
In 1896, his great-great-grandson Konrad Birkenstock had the idea to make and sell flexible footbed inserts.
In 1964 Karl Birkenstock introduced its proprietary footbed to the first Birkenstock sandal, the Madrid.
The Madrid was literally designed to be a workout. It’s got just one strap and you’re meant to constantly feel like it’s about to fall off your feet and so you do that death grip thing with your toes just to make sure that the thing doesn’t slide off.
The Germans actually have a name for this which is called “Angstrreflex” or “Fear Reflex”, which is just the most perfect thing for a German shoe manufacturer to come up with.
I guess the idea here was that you would spend so much time using your foot just to keep your shoe attached to it that you know you’d get nice burly German calves.
In 1966, Birkenstock reached the US when a German-American woman named Margot Fraser was on vacation to her German homeland and fell in love with a pair of Birkenstock sandals.
She was so impressed with the footbed made with cork/latex and lined with suede and finished with leather.
Fraser asked Karl Birkenstock to grant her distribution rights to sell them in her home state of California, which was not as easy as she probably hoped that it would be.
Californians were not quite as enthusiastic about the clunky sandals. So, Birkenstocks were deemed so uncool that shoe stores simply refused to carry them.
Shoe retailers rejected the unconventional sandals, so Fraser had to go by a different route, health food shops which sold these sandals right next to the granola.
With a focus on function over beauty, the shoes were seen as an anti-fashion statement and were adopted by hippie culture.
During the 80s, America’s love affair with the sandal began to fade, but by the 90s, footwear took a turn against the traditional.
Designers began to incorporate grungier chunkier shoes.
In 1992, Marc Jacobs included Birkenstocks in his runway show as the creative director for Perry Ellis.
But fashion critics didn’t take to his utilitarian style and he was ultimately fired. The fashion world wasn’t necessarily ready for that at the time, but as we can see now, he was completely ahead of his time.
It wasn’t until the 2000s that comfort went mainstream with Birkenstock joining the likes of Uggs and Juicy Couture tracksuits. Suddenly, it was cool to be comfortable again.
Eventually, Oliver Reichard, a key figurehead, was brought on board as a consultant. He would later go on to be CEO and the first outsider to run the business in almost two and a half centuries.
Reichard was perhaps the perfect man to transform Birkenstock into a worldwide sensation.
While he shared some of Karl’s anti-fashion sentiments and determination to preserve the company’s tradition, he also bought into the Birkenstock mission to give everyone on this planet access to the footbed.
He knew the brand could do more than just become as he described it, “A museum for old hippies”, which is an interesting way to describe your core fan base.
Under Reichard’s leadership, Birkenstock’s popularity exploded worldwide although sometimes in unintentional ways.
In 2012, right around when Reichard was assuming leadership, luxury fashion designers started pumping out knockoffs.
Phoebe Philo, the creative director of luxury brand Céline, introduced her new collection with models wearing sandals that looked suspiciously similar to the Birkenstock Arizona, the Furkenstock.
They started with Céline’s $900 bejeweled Furkenstocks followed by Giambattista and Givenchy.
Next thing you know, Vogue is raving about these pretty ugly shoes. It’s like these designers gave the fashionistas of the world permission to be both comfortable and stylish. What a revolutionary idea.
There was even a sense that the shoes were fashionable because they were ugly so long as they were contrasted with a stylish outfit.
As Vogue put it, “There’s nothing better than a really pretty dress with an ugly shoe.”
So ultimately, fashion brands finally admitted that Birkenstocks weren’t kale anymore. They were more avocado – healthy but just a bit luxurious, too.
So, when one designer takes that chance and maybe makes that footwear a little bit more decorated whether it’s with charms, fur, or metallic, that’s when it eventually gets to the mainstream.
2013 also saw Birkenstock bringing David Khan as American CEO.
Under Reichard, we’ve seen more Birkenstock collaborations that have expanded the brand appeal to an ever-widening audience because you can have the most ethical orthopedic sustainable shoe ever made, but if it’s ugly as sin, no one is going to buy it, and then all of your efforts were for nothing.
In 2019, the company partnered with designer Rick Owens. Some of the sandals sold out despite retailing for up to $570.
We now have the sneaker Birks, the chelsea Birks, the Rick Owen Birks, the vegan Birks, and even some high-heeled Birks.
I guess this might be the first time we’ve actually applauded a brand for getting more fashionable and more mainstream because everyone can use a healthy comfortable shoe and it’s kind of nice how there’s a high-quality orthopedic shoe out there for everyone these days.
Social media has also done wonders for this company having recently gone viral on Tik Tok for their Boston clog.
Around the same time Crocs started becoming really popular again, Birkenstock rose to popularity back in 2020 primarily due to influencers and celebrities like Kanye West wearing them all over the place.
This controversial granddad shoe is now super popular amongst Gen Z, and the Boston model has been reimagined in multiple collaborations including Rick Owens, Dior, and Stussy.
So, millennials who may have laughed at their dad’s Birkenstocks and couldn’t have fathomed the idea of being caught dead in them are now embracing them.
Experts say the unisex nature of Birkenstock is driving sales with younger consumers.
What’s funny about this is that the younger generation seems to unanimously understand that these shoes are kind of hideous, but that somehow makes them even more likable.
With decisions like this, we’re wondering just how long Birkenstocks is going to last as an icon of practical comfort.
But of course, we’re a little worried about where this might be heading in the future mostly because of who just bought Birkenstock as a company…
Birkenstock Taken Over by LVMH-backed Group
It would be sad enough to see this multi-generational century’s old family business being passed on to someone else, but it is so much worse knowing that is being acquired by the Parisian super conglomerate behind such labels as Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Givenchy.
So instead of being family run by a bunch of stubborn Germans devoted to foot health and quality, they are now owned by a luxury fashion label that is obsessed with chasing money and trends pumping out the latest impractical clothing to make a buck.
Perhaps I’m being a pessimist, but already Birkenstocks has partnered with high-end shoe designer Manolo Blahnik to begin work on what may be just the ugliest least practical Birkenstock yet.
I’m not going to say that this isn’t without its downsides. However, if you have ever tried these footbeds, you know that they are an absolute killer to break in.
I can tell you from personal experience that until that cork molds to your foot, things can get a little dicey as in the shoe dices your foot to pieces, and it’s horrible.
However, if you ask any Birkenstock loyalists, they will tell you it is well worth the blisters.
While the Birkenstock Arizona may not be a particularly exciting sandal to look at, the understated silhouette represents the culmination of two centuries of family expertise, revolutionary orthopedic design, and one of the most unique innovative and sustainable footwear constructions in the business.
So, “Why are Birkenstocks so popular?” I guess you have the answer now.
Overall, Birkenstock’s rise certainly wasn’t sudden, but its popularity is incredibly durable.
Trends like fur, glitter, and animal print will come and go, but comfort and value never go out of style.
We want to know your thoughts in the comments below.